The world was stunned to see fire consume the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral, marked by it's 300 foot spire, falling like a sequoia wrapped in flame. No matter how you feel about it, it's a sight we will not soon forget. That spire was just one of many stunning features that made the cathedral an architectural wonder. Truth be told, the spire was not original to the structure, but reimagined in the 19th century to replace another as part of a restoration by 30 year old French architect and gothic revivalist, Voillet-Le-Duc.
His name came to mind in the early 90's when I was living in Paris as a Disney Imagineer, involved in directing the design of what would soon become Disneyland Paris. The city fascinated me (as it does all of us) and at times I wondered who was the "Walt Disney" of french culture? Hugo, Hausmann, Moebius? Touring the many restored monuments, castles and cathedrals, you'd eventually learn that many of the interiors were actually reimagined and enhanced in the late 1800's by the same Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc. He was a romantic that wanted to deliver the heroic medieval designs that only could be imagined, going well beyond restoring what was there. He seemed to embrace the reason the building existed as his directive and the story that inspired it . Kind of like what a theme park is to historic reality, only he was remaking real places! He imagined his castles filled with knights in shining armor, versus their stone cold reality. Very Disney. Very experiential.
He is believed to have created "characters", like the signature Chimera and Gargoyles, to lend a sense of fantasy to Notre Dame. Despite the scriptural distaste for idolatry, he even added his own likeness to the spire posing as St. Thomas, the patron saint of architects! He wasn't religious, nor a catholic, but a nationalist patriot that wanted to romanticize history as a thematic inspiration. I think that's one reason so many see the cathedral more as the identity of France, or a wonder of the renaissance, beyond it's religious significance.
The same only different.
After Notre Dame, he tacked many more assignments across France. I visited his last project before he died, the nearby Castle of Pierrefonds, restored for Napoleon III. The once crumbling and scarred ruins were transformed with color, pageantry and regal splendor. He brought the fairytale emotion and romanticism to the events that made French culture, decorating the walls with shields and patterns, fleur-de-lis and crests. He did similar at Saint Denis, Amiens, Vincennes and more. As Walt Disney took fairy tales or American history and romanticized them in his theme parks, Voillet-Le-Duc brought "story" to these places and used architecture to bring emotion to the ruins and monuments. Today we tend to just accept his storytelling in design as the way things really were. Case in point, the optimistic spire he added to the cathedral. Ironically, Disney's animated Hunchback swung from it.
The final connection
To make the connection between the two an even closer "six degrees of ornamentation," The Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland lends it's own tiny nod to the French master with a gilded version of the famous spire.
As they say, borrow from the best!
Point being, some of the places we are moved by are conceived and designed with an emotion in mind. Voillet-Le-Duc and Walt Disney were both romantics and used their skills to inspire. That's experiential design at it's best.